Great public speakers are not born, they are made.

Author: Cormac Smith
Date: March 23, 2021

Have you ever felt sick to the pit of your stomach ahead of an important presentation? When speaking, have you ever wished the ground would open up and swallow you? Or have you passed up a great opportunity because you simply could not face the ordeal of addressing an audience of strangers?

I suffered all three, especially before I conquered my stutter. The difference was that, despite my fear, public speaking was something I always wanted to be good at. I’m pleased to say, I now enjoy it! And what’s more, I enjoy helping others to become better public speakers too.

Mediocre, or just plain awful presentations are not uncommon. Think of the number you have sat through, bored or embarrassed for the hapless speaker when the only thing that they and the audience are sharing is probably the desire not to be there! No wonder that speaking before a group consistently makes the top-ten list of human fears.

So, whether you need to overcome a crippling fear or simply want to be a better public speaker, I hope the following thoughts from me, and a few colleagues, may be useful.

Why not just leave presenting to those who love doing it?

If you’re nervous about presenting, or aware that you’re not a great presenter, it can be supremely tempting to leave it to someone else. If your colleague has a knack for engaging audiences, and obviously gets a buzz from doing it, why not breathe a sigh of relief when he volunteers?

We think there are at least three good reasons to get in there yourself.

Firstly, there’s the broader good for your organisation. Great ideas, including yours, deserve to be heard, explained and discussed. How many potentially transformative ideas aren’t accepted because their creators can’t sell them to an audience? Looking at it another way, how many bad ideas, or inferior products, gain success simply because they were skilfully presented? Passing the buck to a better presenter may seem the perfect compromise, but it has real disadvantages. Ben may lack your understanding, passion, or in some cases authority within the organisation. Wouldn’t it be better to learn to do it yourself?

If all that sounds too noble, there are more selfish reasons for working on presentation skills. The number of organisations who don’t value great presenters is vanishingly small. What’s more, a skilled presentation can quickly showcase your abilities to a wide audience.

Finally, there’s a pragmatic reason for not giving up on presentations: you can’t always avoid it. Ben may not always be there to bail you out, and sometimes he may not be the right person for the job.

Why is presenting so hard?

Virtually every presentation relies on talking to others, something that we’ve been doing every day since we were very young. So why is presenting such hard going, and why aren’t we all skilled presenters?

One answer is that presentations have different aims from everyday conversation. A huge proportion of our daily speech centres on maintaining human relationships. Our words are there to oil the big social machine; imparting information comes a distant second.

Giving a presentation is different. Generally, there’s a need to communicate something substantive, such as a new policy or product. And, as generations of teachers have discovered, getting the ideas from your head into someone else’s isn’t always easy. It requires – in our best Liam Neeson voice – a very specific set of skills.

For example, many subject matter experts have huge problems thinking at a novice’s level. After years of accumulating knowledge, they can’t put themselves back in their audience’s shoes. Your best teacher or college lecturer wasn’t necessarily the one with the greatest knowledge. It was the person who could see things from the learner’s point of view.

On top of the communication issue, presenters must contend with the odd social dynamics of a presentation situation. As soon as we fire up our first slide, we step into one role and our audience step into theirs. We’re all following a behavioural script, one that’s developed in countless classrooms and lecture halls. As presenters, we’re confronted with learned audience behaviours – from time-checking to whispering, staring to doodling – that can be very unnerving.

Then there’s the stress factor. Not many people are truly comfortable with presenting. Far more find it intimidating and some find it an off-the-scale, anxiety-provoking nightmare. There are thought to be complex evolutionary reasons for this, but suffice to say that for nervous presenters, the flood of stress hormones can reduce brain function like the aftermath of an all-night bender.

At this stage, it may sound like all the cards are stacked against becoming a great presenter. Surely, overcoming all these hurdles is something only the genetically gifted can achieve? Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

How much can we really improve our presenting?

Great speakers, like great athletes, are graceful while being powerful. They make what they do look effortless. But it is not. Behind every great performance are hours upon hours of painstaking practice and attention to detail. The more practice and conditioning for the task ahead, the better the result. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
So, here are our seven golden rules: the structured training steps we can take to help us be the best presenters and public speakers we can be.

  1. Know your goals.
    Ask yourself what the aims of your presentation are. How would you measure its success? For example, it’s easy to confuse entertaining your audience for delivering a successful presentation.
  2. Understand your audience.
    Knowing your audience’s needs, desires and amount of background knowledge can inform every aspect of your presentation. As we pointed out earlier, our favourite teachers are usually the ones who can put themselves in our shoes.
  3. Create structure and narrative.
    Whatever your subject matter, focus on organising material coherently, with a beginning, middle and end. Without structure and a sense of moving forward, audiences quickly become lost and disengaged.
  4. Deal with anxiety.
    Easier said than done, you may think, but there are many tried and tested psychological techniques for reducing stage fright. In many cases, a combination of knowing your material and practice (see below) can really reduce anxiety.
  5. Practice.
    Rehearsing a specific presentation will increase your confidence and familiarity with the material. But doing any presentation can help, as familiarity with any stressor reduces its effect. Think of it this way: most people find negotiating their first roundabout terrifying, but five hundred roundabouts later, it’s a bit more routine. Speaking before a group is no different.
  6. Get constructive feedback.
    Honest, constructive and unbiased feedback is a vital tool in developing presentation skills. Without it, you may remain blissfully unaware of your distracting mannerisms, verbal tics, aggressive body language and other presenting sins.
  7. Learn the technology.
    Even before the global pandemic, technology was playing an increasing role in presentation skills. With the rise of web-based interactions, it’s indispensable. Becoming familiar with relevant technology reduces overall anxiety but gives a host of options for supporting and enhancing your presentation.

Public speaking, whether you are addressing your team, your board, the media, pitching to a potential new client or delivering a keynote to 500, is a core communication and leadership skill. It is neglected by too many – but it will never go out of fashion, and it will never lose its power to connect with an audience and bring others with you on a journey.

Request a free Presentation Skills Health Check with Cormac and Raquel here

Baird’s CMC provides expertise in all aspects of communications, messaging and media management. Specialising in crisis management, we provide training to high profile clients throughout the world. Find out more at our website or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Your Project Team

Raquel Cruz and Cormac Smith bring significant experience in all aspects of strategic communication and public relations. Having worked across our organisation to develop our new product offerings, specifically aimed at the current challenges we all face, they will assemble and lead the strongest teams to address your issues. With our unique global network rest assured you will always be working with the best in the business.

Raquel Cruz

Project Manager

Raquel is a communications and project management specialist. She will be coordinating the introduction of our new services and supporting clients in the management and delivery of their projects.

Since working for Baird’s CMC, Raquel has been involved in communications, research, and project management for clients including Roche, IFPMA, ViiV Healthcare, Angelini Pharma and Gavi, with accountability for everything from conception to successful completion.

  • Speaks fluent Spanish and English
  • Masters’ degree in International Journalism from Cardiff University, UK
  • Background as a public relations consultant in a Spanish communications agency
  • Experienced radio producer and social media specialist

Cormac Smith

Skills Development
Project Director

Cormac is a highly experienced strategic communications specialist. He has been integral to the development of these new services and will be working closely with clients to understand their needs and develop solutions.

In a career spanning three decades Cormac has held a number of senior positions, including Deputy Director of Communications at the UK Cabinet Office, Strategic Communications Advisor to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and as Director of Communications for several UK local authorities.

  • Media training and public speaking expert
  • Experienced in crisis communications
  • Specialist in staff engagement and corporate leadership
  • Trusted adviser on reputation management and media relations